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As we begin a new year with a new set of resolutions to follow, it appears that the world is reacting negatively to the small victories won by feminists around the world in 2012. While women rights advocates throw their collective weight behind struggles for equality in education, health care and the workplace, others decry the “irrelevance” of feminism in third-world countries such as ours. Why care about women when we should be caring about humans? Why affix the dreaded label of “feminist” which conjures images of bra-burning circa 1960s? Why cry about the status of women in South Asia where the matriarchal figures of grandmothers and great-aunts hold so much power in popular culture? There is no women’s problem; there is just a developmental problem, right?

However well-intentioned such arguments may be, they betray a deeply flawed understanding of what feminism is, why it exists and why it remains important in Pakistan in 2013. Feminism is not the belief that individual men do not love their wives or fail to champion their rights. It is not the belief that women are incapable of defending themselves or standing up for their rights to be educated, to dress as they please and to proclaim their equality. Feminism does not equate a sense of victimhood and it does not assume women need special protection. Women do not need (or ask for) protection; what they need is empowerment, which can only be gained through social and institutional equality. It is wonderful and encouraging that there are individuals who respect women, but that does not change an inherently patriarchal society unless more people are willing to identify it as sexist.

One article that recently appeared in referred to the author’s own village as an example of why women are not oppressed and why urban Pakistani feminism is irrelevant. He questioned how the shrill cries of women rights activists in metropolitan cities could be in touch with reality in a country where elderly women could lie about in the nude while their clothes hanged to dry and angry wives are at liberty to beat their husbands. He characterised the world as one where domestic abuse, whether inflicted upon a man or a woman, is censured but left as a “private matter” for families to deal with themselves.

Moreover, he associates the existence of progressive couples enjoying equality in relationships with the idea that feminism no longer matters, the battle has been won and it is time to focus on other issues. Opinions such as these are deeply saddening because of their insistence on ignoring starker realities in favour of sentimentalised examples. It is true that a number of wealthy, urban Pakistanis tend to be more in touch with western societies than their own, but that does not make the fight for women rights any less important. The truth is that a wife who smacks her husband with a shoe may be tolerated, but only as a somewhat comical stereotype.

However, serious domestic violence against women, including rape and life-threatening beatings, are a common phenomenon precisely because society treats it as a “private matter” between husband and wife and institutions such as the police remain notorious for not taking action against it. Similarly, while an elderly woman may have the liberty to flaunt her aging body without raising eyebrows, a young girl caught wearing anything deemed socially inappropriate is likely to be censured to a point where eve-teasing and physical harassment would be considered just punishment for not abiding by with the norms (one need only view the comments on news stories reporting incidents of rape).

As for the existence of equal partnerships between spouses, while it again points to an encouraging trend among men who are embracing progressive ideals, it does not relieve society of the burden of patriarchy. And at the end of the day, most middle class Pakistani households struggle to put together acceptable dowries for daughters, very few families remain comfortable with their daughter’s right to divorce (and in fact many do not grant this right in the nikah nama). Along with that, nearly no one sees men as equally responsible for the task of parenting.

I urge all those who are afraid to call themselves feminists to transcend the negative stereotype and own the label. Women rights are human rights and investing time and passion in the promotion of women’s literacy and earning potential, enabling their access to birth control and ridding them of sexual objectification is a struggle that will pay dividends for centuries to come.

Were it not for the original feminists, whether at home or abroad, women would still be writing under male pseudonyms, denied scientific education and suffrage and expected to submit to unequal partnerships in love and in business. The fight is far from over: we are earning 75 per cent of what men earn in the same roles with the same qualifications; we are denied the right to press charges against marital rape in most countries (and discouraged from doing so in our own); we are less likely to be allowed to enter or finish school when there are male children in the family; we can still be censured or even imprisoned for seeking abortions and most of all, we are asked to remain silent because our anger is not justified or “feminine”.

This is not a war on men, this is not a neat dichotomy where males are the oppressors and females are the victims; this is an appeal for men and women to call themselves feminists and be proud to advocate equality for those who hold up half the sky. It is not difficult to begin: next time you see sexist depictions of gender roles in the media, hear someone blame a victim of sexual abuse for what happened to them or encounter pressure to be a submissive woman or an emotionless man, speak up. Do that and your sons and daughters will thank you for creating a fairer world for them to live in.


The author is a world history teacher and yoga instructor; passionate about education, women's rights and animal welfare. She blogs here.


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (32) Closed

abbastoronto Jan 11, 2013 02:39pm
Eating meat was an act of worship in early Islam. It was done rarely. The animal is pacified, and then slaughtered ritually, invoking Allah
sarahe Jan 11, 2013 12:03pm
Thank you for commenting. I'm sorry you're so cynical about the cause and I agree that there is a long way to go, but beg to differ-feminism is not the "idle of the upper middle class young women" who fancy themselves anything. Working class women brave many conditions to earn for their families as domestic help and factory workers. They may not fit the mould of a modern feminist, but I guarantee if you speak to them they will be as passionate about their right to send their daughters to school and not be sexually harassed on public transport as anybody. Moreover, terms such as "barefoot and pregnant" and their implications hurt the cause of banishing sexism; women who choose to stay home and have children are not necessarily any less powerful or intelligent than those who march in protests.
akki Jan 11, 2013 05:35pm
Gender empowerment can be measured through the "Gender Empowerment Measure" - wikipedia
aliamjadrizvi Jan 11, 2013 05:31pm
There will never be a substantive feminist movement in Pakistan or any other Muslim country unless the right to criticize and renounce religion is accessible to all. Without that, you will always hit a barrier you can
Huma Jan 11, 2013 10:49am
well said!
Lou Jan 11, 2013 04:43pm
you realise that there is a number of reasons people dress how they do? One may be to attract males or females for sex or attention. Another could be that they like fashion or feel more comfortable in those clothes. For example, sometimes I dress provocatively for attention and sometimes I do it because I like the way I look. More importantly, this is very low on the agenda for most feminists and most will admit why they are dressing like they do. Feminism is partly to do with being comfortable with your sexuality so why would they deny that they dress as they do for sex??? Also, you seem to be patronising men somewhat. I think it's rather insulting to say that they are tricked into marriage by the way a woman dresses.
saq Jan 11, 2013 04:40pm
Do empowerment helps us in avoiding women to be sexual objectification? i thing modeling is the field which signifies and accept women equal, but i dont think so that prevent women to be sexual objectification. In every advertisement there is young woman model whether required or not. Media dressed women as sexual object by exposing as much part of their body ,,, is it justifiable? why not object on this commercial abuse? you dont object because they are getting huge amount for doing this?
Cyrus Howell Jan 11, 2013 10:31am
There will not be many recruits in an semi illiterate ultra religious society where most women are unable to think for themselves. Whether feminism is considered a good thing or a bad thing, in Pakistan, it is the idle of the upper middle class young women who fancy themselves the avant guarde freeing the mentally challenged. Most women in Pakistan cannot leave the house unescorted. In late 19th century and early 20th century America feminists not only marched in the streets they marched from town to town for the right to vote and for the legal prohibition of alcoholic drinks. You can only sell feminism and immunization on a salary plus commission to the barefoot and pregnant.
Cyrus Howell Jan 11, 2013 11:06am
Yoga and animal rights are Western, New Age, Mary Poppins, Tinkerbelle, Little Mermaid dynamics. One will find very few men in a yoga class. That is where the new age revolution is being hatched, but when the shooting starts these young women will still care more about wounded animals than they will about wounded soldiers. Our sons and daughters will thank us for creating a fairer world for them to live in only if we have the courage to stand up against corruption and injustice, not open a rescue clinic for dogs and cats.
saq Jan 11, 2013 04:32pm
A very good blog but would like to know what exactly empowerment mean? someone explain me???
Cyrus Howell Jan 11, 2013 10:37am
Count Leo Tolstoi, author of War and Peace, once remarked, the society of women is different from the society of men. In Pakistan feminism is talked about behind closed doors, not through open windows least women be dragged into the streets burned for blasphemy.
Sindhu Jan 11, 2013 10:23am
Thank you for writing a reply to that god-awful article.I don't know what universe Mr. Masud Alam lives in.He just made a mockery of himself by criticizing a struggle that he knows jack about.I've been reading Dawn since childhood,I've never seen such pathetic articles published in Dawn.Why is Dawn publishing trash and giving spaces to silly people like Mr. Masud Alam?
umesh bhagwat Jan 11, 2013 12:40pm
It is indeed high time that women stopped begging for better treatment and started asserting themselves! No nation has a right to call itself civilised unless it treats its women with respect and dignity. The prophet himself had the highest regard for the dignity and honour of women. A couple of centuries ago, nothing was more sacred than the honour of women in Nothing prevents a woman from asserting herself except her own inhibitions. It is high time that women in stop equating themselves with their western counterparts and quietly accept their own individuality. In my opinion being able to wear western clothes is not a sign of freedom or dignity. We should wear decent clothes appropriate to our own culture. The growing divorce rate in our society is also a result of our trying to imitate western culture. Our culture is unique and women have a very important role in preserving it. In my opinion economic empowerment is the key to a dignified life for women. In that respect islam is more progressive than Hinduism. Let Asian values once again take their rightful place in the world and show the way to a more harmonious existence. .
Reema Jan 11, 2013 01:19pm
It's avant garde, and I know we are not wired to do this, but we would love to start thinking for ourselves whenever you are done telling us what to think.
Dixit Jan 11, 2013 10:18am
Sarah ji, read your article and felt very good that you are speaking openly for the rights of women in Pakistan. Since you are an animal lover, may I suggest you to write against animal sacrifices.
sarahe Jan 11, 2013 01:08pm
I'm not obliged to respond to such personal attacks, but I will. Yoga and animal rights are two of the oldest traditions in the subcontinent, which is the birthplace of yoga and a primarily agrarian economy which values all creatures for their usefulness. The very idea that yoga is a yuppie, new age fad is Western. I'll assume the last line is simply irrelevant trolling, since my article is about fundamental rights, not rescue clinics for anyone.
jen Jan 11, 2013 11:48am
The problem is very simple but feminists do not wish to accept it. If you ask any girl or woman Why they are dressing provocatively, the anwser you get is that is their right. The moment they admit that they dress like that to attract potential mates to reproduce, much of the problem is solved. Unfortunately, no girl/woman is ready accept this simple fact. Once this simple question is answered honestly, then it is easier for men to handle themselves by redefining their existing/future prison i.e. the marriage.
abbastoronto Jan 11, 2013 11:43am
Masud Alam wrote correctly. What he did not realize is that the rights of women he wrote of were acquired through centuries of struggle in an agrarian economy. The same struggle must start anew in the new industrial/exchange/urban economy Pakistan is entering today. Men do not give up these rights without a fight.
mshaiq Jan 11, 2013 11:42am
I completely agree with your comment, especially the last part.
AHA Jan 11, 2013 12:09pm
Extremely well said.
abbastoronto Jan 11, 2013 11:37am
Feminism mattered in the West a great deal, and is should matter in Pakistan and Muslim countries too. Feminist struggle took place in the West at the transition of agrarian/rural to industrial/urban society, and time has come for the same to happen in Pakistan that is going through this Transitional Civil War right now. Social change lags economic advance. This was the situation in Arabia in 7th century. A land poor, water poor, resource poor land had developed an advanced trading society out of necessity of survival, but was still mired in Tribal pastoral socio-politics. The miracle of Our Prophet AS was to bring the socio-political Revolution. The
Nouman Jan 11, 2013 07:45pm
Please explain why women as you said will wobble and lose their argument once they start defending the Abrahamic scripture and why do you call these scriptures misogynistic?
abc Jan 11, 2013 08:06pm
"Shari" was made to protect women from objectification. as long as women follow sharia and modesty, and refrain to follow western version of womens liberation. women will always be safe and there will be no question of objectification of women.
Malone Jan 12, 2013 12:24am
Human beings have teeth appropriate for carnivores. Gorillas and chimpanzees are carnivores.
Ali Jan 12, 2013 02:02am
Lou, in a country like Pakistan, sexuality, for both men and women, is relegated to one's private domain; the benefits of keeping it there far outweigh the benefits of bringing it into the public domain.
Kausik Jan 12, 2013 02:58am
Very bold and truthful blog on condition of women in Asia.i do not think any changes possible as there is no political will due to corrupt system as delhi incident of brutality demonstrated.we need fundamental political changes and change in attitude towards women we have a lot to learn from west.
Ahsin Jan 12, 2013 04:55am
Bravo for speak up abt women rights!!!!!!!!!! Good article no doubt. But I am yet to see south east asian feminist / women rights activits to write strongly for woment rights based / ordered by Quran and not as per their own modern thinking / enlightenment. But i read many westerner women inspite of having all rights/freedom converted to islam and vowes for rights as per islamic rulings. Just think over this other then relation to my write up and with a open mind (not pro / against this comment)...
suleman Jan 12, 2013 06:10am
Superbly written, and I agree with the central message that women's rights have to more than mere "respect" and keeping it in the family. Just like laws that kill minorities and religious dissidents, the overall mindset and legal system of Pakistan ends up making the culprit out of a rape victim, or even a divorcee. The last line of the article is a perfect call-to-action
koogee Jan 12, 2013 06:11am
I agree with equal pay and laws that protect women against violence but not with the fact that a woman should be able to dress provocatively in public, We have the west and their demolished social and moral structure as a clear example of what this leads to. We have a culture and values that women must adhere to proudly. Modesty protects them from objectification which is one of their goals anyway.
suleman Jan 12, 2013 06:12am
Though I wouldn't say go that far, it is true that where religion has taken a stronghold, women (along with various sections of society) are oppressed. Take Salem as an example...
Rosie Jan 12, 2013 07:55pm
I agree. Everyone should have an absolute right to renounce religion. Its a personal choice. Only then you can be free.
london wills for fast easy online wills Jan 12, 2013 08:00pm
'Quietly accept their...' ha ha ha that says it all.